Pakistani president wades into 'Down's Syndrome' blasphemy case
President Zardari's intervention may signal that moderate coalition parties in the government will take up the issue of reforming the blasphemy law again.
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“On Friday I got reports that in a village on the outskirts of Islamabad, some 1,000 men had gathered after the Friday prayers sermons where the local cleric had asked for the massacre of Christians in the neighborhood over blasphemy by a Christian girl. But due to timely action by the police, we were able to calm the crowd,” Dr. Bhatti says.Skip to next paragraph
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Safer in jail for now
The girl is scheduled to appear in court on Aug. 25, according to the police officials investigating the case.
According to Bhatti, the charges against the girl would likely be dropped once the medical report is completed, but in an effort to protect the girl, her family, and other Christians in the area from vigilantes, a case had to be registered against her. “If the girl was free and not in jail, it would have been impossible to protect her,” he says.
Meanwhile, police have filed a case against one of her accusers.
“We have also filed a case against the local cleric accusing her because he damaged police property and wanted us to hand over the girl to her. But we did not arrest him yet because it is such a religiously sensitive issue that if we do anything against the cleric it could land us in trouble,” says Zabiullah, a police officer from the area who goes by only one name.
This situation on the ground remains fragile.
Peter Jacob, a human rights activist, who heads the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a Christian human rights organization, says around 250 to 300 families have fled the area where the girl lives. “Things have calmed down in the area now they do not want to return, because who can guarantee that it will not happen again?” says Mr. Jacob.
Chance for change?
That the president has weighed in on the situation could be a key step forward for the country says Jacob: “This can be a chance for the government to revisit the blasphemy law and make recommendations to the parliament about it."
“With this case coming to light, it is imperative now that the political parties, civil society, and media houses shun the tradition of playing politics in the name of religion; for everyone is vulnerable to the abuse of blasphemy laws,” says Mr. Rumi.
Attempts to alter the blasphemy laws have been unsuccessful in the past, however.
Pakistan's ambassador to the United States Sherry Rehman submitted a bill to the National Assembly in 2010 seeking an end to the death penalty envisaged in the blasphemy laws. But after pressure from religious parties and the assassinations last year of top officials Salman Taaseer and Shahbaz Bhatti – both of whom publicly supported changing the law – the government announced that it would not change the law.
The current government is not strong enough to make any changes says Paul Bhatti, who is Shahbaz’s brother. “Even if the law changes, who will change the mindset of the people? It is very important that we first create interfaith harmony in Pakistan, without which such discrimination against non-Muslims will continue,” he says.
NCJP estimates that each year more than 100 people are accused of blasphemy in Pakistan, a figure that is rising; however, the group says most of them are not genuine and occur due to personal enmity or discrimination against religious minorities.